When I first started researching At the Drop of a Hat (1962), and its sequel At the Drop of Another Hat (1967), I wasn't expecting to need to dedicate a whole lot of time to it. It's just two white dudes singing comedy songs right?!
As I delved deeper into the comedic duo of Flanders and Swann, I became intrigued by their stories. Both were fascinating men who were immensely brilliant writers and, by all accounts, absolutely charming individuals.
As a young man, Michael Flanders had contracted polio and as a result became a wheelchair user. From what I can gather, Michael Flanders was the first actor in a wheelchair to perform on Broadway and in the West End. Writers of the day barely gave this fact a mention, and one author infuriatingly noted that maybe Flanders "could surely step out" of his chair. Flanders faced many difficulties as a performer in a wheelchair, and he was devastated that despite the fact he could perform, other wheelchair users were not permitted in the theatre. He became a passionate advocate for the rights of people with disabilities, a cause his wife Claudia Cockburn also became involved in and was awarded an Order of the British Empire for her work.
Donald Swann was born in Wales, the child of a British national father born in Russia and a Muslim mother from southern Russia in what is now Turkmenistan. Swann was a conscientious objector in the war and as a result of his service with the Friends' Ambulance in became fascinated with the music and culture of Greece.
Through their revue At the Drop of a Hat, the duo performed not only in the West End and on Broadway, but across the United States, in Switzerland, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong.
The taping of their two shows in 1962 and 1967 also revealed history about concerns of filming live theatre, how performers should be remunerated for broadcasts, and the role of theatre on television.
Information about the filming of At the Drop of Another Hat was relatively easy to find. The show had been filmed at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York and was released on VHS. The footage is currently available on YouTube, under the erroneous title "The Only Flanders & Swann Video."
Watching the video, it struck me that Flanders sometimes seemed to be in a bad mood, and some of the audience members even appeared to be bored. I later learned that the studio taping took over 7 hours. Flanders and Swann were reportedly frustrated by the stops and starts to adjust lighting and angles, and the audience were likely exhausted.
I kept finding mention of At the Drop of a Hat being filmed, but couldn't find information on where or when. This lead me to one of my all time favorite pastimes, delving into the archives at the Billy Rose Theatre Division at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
The archive holds literally hundreds of boxes containing the papers of Alexander H. Cohen, the groundbreaking American producer who bought Flanders and Swann to Broadway. Due to space and COVID restrictions, and limited time to spend at the library, I was only able to access exactly 6 boxes per appointment, and I had to choose from the hundreds of boxes which 6 boxes might hold the answers to my questions.
I hit the jackpot in a folder labelled "Alexander H Cohen Papers, Billy Rose Theatre Collection, Theatre - At the Drop of a Hat Correspondence 1957." Letters exchanged between Cohen, Michael Flanders, and Flanders and Swann's agents at MCA, detailed that At the Drop of a Hat had been filmed with an invited audience at the BBC's Studio 4 in London. It was filmed as part of the Festival of the Performing Arts, a short-lived cultural television program sponsored by the New Jersey Standard Oil Company.
The program was only supposed to be aired in the US, but the BBC immediately wanted to air it in the UK. The letters detail Flanders and Swann's concerns over a UK release, which included worries about the impact on future ticket sales, and also proper renumeration for such a broadcast. British Equity had just emerged from a 7 month strike against ITV over payments based on potential audience size, and Flanders and Swann wanted to ensure they were properly compensated.
Although it has not been released since airing on either British or American television, truncated video footage of At the Drop of a Hat may still exist, as Donald Swann discusses watching it, with some trepidation, many years later in his autobiography.
I'm so glad that my research led me to the work of Flanders and Swann. While some of their comedy is a little dated, much of the music and witty songs are as delightful and fun as when they were first performed over seventy years ago.
You can learn more about At the Drop of a Hat and At the Drop of Another Hat in the database!
Pre-pandemic the rules for streaming local school or community musical productions were very clear: no filming allowed! Although it was sometimes possible for these groups to buy additional licenses to film the show for archival purposes or purchase a license to sell show DVDs to friends and family at cost.
The pandemic saw a seismic shift in permissions for streaming. It took much negotiating with playwrights, composers, and music publishing houses, but it is now easier than ever for schools and amateur theatre groups to stream their productions so that non-local relatives, friends, people restricted by geography, physical ability, or global pandemics, can tune into their productions.
Due to the complex negotiations required for streaming, it’s not surprising that licensing companies themselves are behind new specialized platforms for streaming theatre. After purchasing a license for a show, schools and community groups can use platforms such ShowTix4U and ShowShare to stream their productions. One fee takes care of royalties and streaming rights, and the ticket sales or donations are all through the one platform. The platforms also provide tech and streaming support, resulting in higher quality streams than using Zoom, YouTube, or Facebook Live.
The first platform to go live was ShowTix4U, which launched in mid-June 2020. A partnership between musical licensing company Music Theatre International (MTI), streaming platform Digital Theatre, and tech experts Broadway Media, ShowTix4U provides a platform for both ticket sales and streams. Tickets can be sold to both in-person and streamed events, and shows can be streamed live or on demand. Another benefit of using the platform, is that licensing fees and royalties for MTI shows are automatically part of the fee.
MTI titles are available with 4 different types of streaming rights: Live-Streaming (streamed in real-time), Scheduled Content (stream pre-recorded productions), Video on Demand (pre-recorded video or previous productions), or Remote Content (produced virtually). There are currently 97 titles available including Annie, Billy Elliot the Musical, Daddy Long Legs, Spring Awakening, Urinetown, and Working. There are also 35 Disney titles available, including Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Descendants, and The Little Mermaid, and Newsies, with most only available using Scheduled Content Streaming. According to Playbill, the top three streamed MTI titles throughout the pandemic were Songs for a New World, Disney’s High School Musical, and Annie.
An initiative of Broadway on Demand, ShowShare launched in September 2020. Its current licensing partners include Broadway Licensing, Playscripts, Stage Rights, Concord Theatricals, and Youth Plays. Musicals with streaming rights include After Midnight, BRKLYN the Musical, Emma: A Pop Musical, and Polkadots. According to Broadway on Demand Vice President Tralen Doler, 1466 schools streamed their musical productions via ShowShare throughout the pandemic. The most produced musicals were Emma, Disenchanted, and You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
A third platform is BookTix, which as its name suggests, started as a digital ticket booking platform. Founders Tim DiVito and Jason Goldstein increasingly saw a need to also provide streaming services, and expanded. As of May 2020, BookTix is partnered with Theatrical Rights Worldwide, whose entire catalog, including Monty Python’s Spamalot, Bright Star, The Prom, and The Color Purple, includes free streaming rights. According Director of Operations Cassie Balint, the most produced musical “by far” throughout the pandemic was The Addams Family. Other popular shows included You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, We Will Rock You, and Spamalot.
It will be great to see these streaming rights extended to professional productions, though this will need a significant shift from Equity and SAG/AFTRA, who have long battled over how to negotiate who gets paid what for live theatre broadcasts.
I have been sharing upcoming high school and community theatre streams in the weekly Filmed Live Musicals newsletter. Sign up to find out what’s streaming near you!
Despite the fact that we’ve been filming theatre since the invention of cameras, and that the first live theatre broadcasts took place in 1939, many still don’t know that filming stage shows and releasing them for public consumption is a thing. And when folks are aware of filmed live theatre, there are usually two reactions. Either they are either afraid of it because they think it will cannibalize ticket sales, or they dismiss it entirely as “not theatre”.
To the first point, as I’ve written previously, there is little evidence to suggest that filmed live theatre cannibalizes ticket sales — mainly because most captures are released in the final days of a show’s run, or after it has closed. For musicals that were released during a run, such as Legally Blonde, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, or Daddy Long Legs, ticket sales stayed stable, or were boosted, by the filmed live release.
Despite research that shows that audiences find watching theatre on screen a viable alternative, I don’t entirely disagree with the folks who ascertain filmed live theatre is not theatre. It falls somewhere in between the live theatre experience and a movie.
Terms that were used a lot pre-pandemic included filmed live theatre, live cinema, transmission, HD transmission, cine-cast, pro-shot, and live capture.
Some recent big Broadway name examples, Hamilton, Come From Away, and Diana (it’s fun to note that both Diana and Come From Away are directed by Christopher Ashley, who also directed Memphis, which was filmed live on Broadway with an audience in 2011) show that there is no consensus on what to call filmed live theatre. The filmed live version of Hamilton is billed on Disney Plus as “the Original Broadway Production,” and is referred to in press as the filmed version, filmed presentation, filmed performance, filmed version, Hamilton movie, recorded performance, live capture or live-capture, and streaming version. When tweeting the announcement of the filmed live release of Hamilton, the musical’s composer Lin-Manuel Miranda called it “Our Hamilton film”, and used the hashtag, #Hamilfilm.
In August 2020, Diana the Musical, a new Broadway musical which was still in previews at the time of the shutdown, revealed that the show would be filmed live without an audience and released on Netflix. Press around the announcement described it as a taping, filmed version, specially filmed version, recorded without an audience, and recording.
It was announced in February that Come From Away, the Broadway musical that tells the real-life story of the Canadian town of Gander which hosted 7000 stranded passengers after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, will be filmed in May. A variety of terms were used to describe the soon-to-be-released product: filmed live or live filming, filmed live version, live stage recording, filmed stage production, pro-shot, capture, and live taping. To add to the confusion, one reporter stated that it was unclear if this filmed live version would be different from the film adaptation that had been previously announced.
When we delve deeper into the filmed live theatre world, there are differences that are important to define so audiences and industry folks alike know what they’re dealing with. Some productions are filmed and broadcast live, such as most content from Live from Lincoln Center, BroadwayHD captures of She Loves Me and Daddy Long Legs, or the National Theatre’s Follies. These productions are often made available after the live broadcast, and billed as “live”. Other productions are filmed live with an audience, and edited with close-ups and on-stage angles that are filmed separately from the actual performance, such as Love Never Dies, Newsies, and Hamilton. Then there is another category of shows that are filmed to look like their stage show versions, but are filmed without an audience, such as the National Theatre’s 1998 production of Oklahoma! or the 1999 made-for-VHS Cats.
While the pandemic has resulted in a slew of filmed live musicals being made available online, often live recordings made for archival purposes, it has also opened up new categories, and ways of filming that are not always made clear to audiences what they’re watching. There’s filmed live in a theatre without an audience present, such as Fiver, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, or The Last Five Years all filmed at Southwark Playhouse, filmed live remotely on Zoom such as Curveball Creative’s Who’s Your Baghdaddy, or filmed separately and edited together like Irish Rep’s clever Meet Me In St Louis. Finally, there’s a new self-titled theatre/film hybrid of stage shows filmed in theatres and presented as films, such as Curve Theatre’s Sunset Boulevard.
So what should we call filmed live theatre? It’s one of my favorite questions to ask guests on the Filmed Live Musicals podcast. Take a listen to Episode 15 The Grinning Man with composers Marc Teitler and Tim Philips, to find out what I think is one of the best answers so far!
Coming up in 2021, you may see a few less blog posts from me as I attempt to catch-up on the back log of musicals in the database. When I wrote my thesis on filmed live musicals back in 2012, I had a list of about 80 musicals. By the end of 2020, that list has exploded to over 350 musicals, only 185 of which are currently in searchable database! And that doesn’t even include musicals filmed without an audience or “zoomsicals” (musicals performed over zoom). That’s a lot of musicals to write up!
I want to continue spotlighting musicals by a diverse range of artists from around the world, especially musicals by women and people of color, and musicals in languages other than English.
The Filmed Live Musicals Podcast will continue to feature artists, creators, and industry specialists who make filmed live musical theatre.
I will continue to update the Filmed Live Musicals calendar, If you want to make sure you don't miss when musicals are screening, make sure to sign up for the weekly newsletter!
I’m hoping that as the vaccine is rolled out, I can return to focusing on stage musicals that have been filmed live with an audience present!
Filmed Live Musicals is very much a labor of love. Thank you to my wonderful patrons for helping to offset the financial cost of running the site. No matter what level you pledge at, every patron receives early access to content and the podcast.
And to everyone who has signed up for the weekly newsletter, downloaded the podcast, and shared a love of filmed live musical theatre with me, thank you!
IIIIIII’ll drink to that!
Thank you to patrons Rachel Esteban, Mercedes Esteban-Lyons, Al Monaco, David Negrin, Jesse Rabinowitz & Brenda Goodman, David & Katherine Rabinowitz, and Bec Twist, for financially supporting Filmed Live Musicals.
In this week's episode of the podcast, I chat with Kelly Kessler, Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at DePaul University, about her new book Broadway in the Box: Television's Lasting Love Affair with the Musical.
We talk about Kelly's research, why television networks produce live musicals, the role of adverts, the first musicals on television, the first Broadway musical to air live on television (and who got to watch it), and why we should put musicals on television!
Broadway in the Box: Television's Lasting Love Affair with the Musical is available at all major bookstores.
About This Week's Guest
Kelly Kessler is an Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at DePaul University. Her work draws on three main areas: the American musical, the intersection of genre and gender, and the mainstreaming of lesbianism in American television and film. Her scholarship can be found in works such as Studies in Musical Theatre, The Journal of E-Media Studies, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, Television and New Media, Movies, Moves, and Music: The Sonic World of the Dance Film, Televising Queer Women: A Reader, and The New Queer Aesthetic on Television: Essays on Recent Programming. Kessler has published two books, including Destabilizing the Hollywood Musical: Music, Masculinity and Mayhem and Broadway in the Box: Television's Lasting Love Affair with the Musical.
My first exposure to a musical not in English was the 10th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables where 17 Valjeans from “just some of the world-wide productions” sang “Do You Hear the People Sing” in 13 different languages. Currently holding the title as the longest running West End musical, Les Miserables is itself an English translation of a French musical (Herbert Kretzmer, who provided the libretto for the English version, recently passed away at the age of 95).
Filmed live musicals in languages other than English are currently lacking from the database, but there is certainly a plethora of them out there. Some of the titles are translations of English-language musicals, but many are original musicals, showing the popularity of the musical form worldwide.
Here’s a brief look at filmed live musicals in Dutch, Korean, Russian, and Spanish, that have been released online in 2020.
Dutch company De Graaf & Cornelissen Entertainment have released four full-length filmed live musicals for free on YouTube including Wat Zien Ik?! (What Do I See?!), Liesbeth, Volendam, and Op Hoop Van Zegen (Hoping for the Best).
Wat Zien Ik?! is based on the book by Albert Mol. The musical premiered in October 2006 and ran until May 2007. Wat Zien Ik?! is set in the 1960s and follows the trials and tribulations of two women who work in Amsterdam’s Red Light District.
Liesbeth is a biographical musical about Dutch entertainer Liesbeth List who was famous for her interpretations of the songs of Jacques Brel and Edith Piaf. The musical premiered in October 2017, and closed in January 2018.
Set in a village fair, Volendam tells the story of a woman named Mary, who returns to the town of her childhood, and must confront her past. The musical was performed from November 2010 until April 2011.
Based on the 1900 play, Op Hoop Van Zegen, tells the story of a fisherman’s widow and her fight for survival amidst social injustice. The production was filmed in 2008.
Efteling is a Dutch fantasy-themed amusement park that pre-dates Disneyland by three years. The park’s theatre, Efteling Theater have released several filmed live musicals on their YouTube channel including Sprookjessprokkelaar de musical (Fairytale Collector: The Musical), De gelaarsde Kat (Puss in Boots), Pinokkio, and three Sprookjesboom de Musical (Fairytale Tree the Musical) titles. All are freely available on the Efteling YouTube channel, and have received hundreds of thousands of views.
Commencing with Korean-language versions of RENT in 2000, The Phantom of the Opera in 2001, and Mozart Das Musikal in 2010, American and European musicals have become an immensely popular form of entertainment in Korea, growing to a $300 million business. In an effort to further boost ticket sales in a saturated market, producers have stunt cast K-pop and soap opera stars in lead roles for select performances.
Although some theatres in Korea have managed to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, audience numbers are obviously lower than normal. Producers have turned to livestreams to boost sales and provide audiences at home with musical theatre content.
Produced by the Korean Army and Insight Entertainment, Korean musical Return: The Promise of the Day was livestreamed over four performances in late September and featured K-pop stars D.O. and Xiumin of EXO and former Wanna One member Yoon Ji-sung. The musical tells the story of a Korean War vet who goes in search of his lost comrades. Viewers were required to purchase tickets to view the stream, which was also broadcast with English subtitles.
Sonata of a Flame, starring Ryeowook of Super Junior, Hui of Pentagon, and Yoo Hwe-seung of N. Flying, was livestreamed over thirteen performances from September 18 - 26. Like Return, viewers were required to purchase tickets to watch the stream, which was available worldwide (though not in China or Indonesia).
In September K-Musical On Air hosted a free online musical theatre festival. featuring “four of the hottest Korean musicals in real time.” The musicals included The Fan Letter, The Goddess is Watching You, Red Cliff, and The Fiction. English subtitles were available for viewers watching on V Live. The festival was an initiative of the Korea Tourism Organization, which since 2017 has sponsored 14 Korean musicals to provide foreign-language subtitles.
The Fan Letter is a fictional re-telling of historical events as seen by artists and writers during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the 1930s.
Set during the Korean war, The Goddess is Watching tells the story of two soldiers from North and South Korea who find themselves on uninhabited islands during the conflict. The musical premiered in 2013, and has been playing ever since.
Produced by Jeongdong Theater in Seoul, Red Cliff first opened in 2017 and has proved a popular draw. Influenced by pansori, a traditional Korean form of musical storytelling using drums and singing, Red Cliff is based on one of five pansori tales, “Jeokbyeokga”, which means “The Song of the Red Cliffs.” Red Cliff was also streamed for one night on Jeondong Theater’s YouTube channel in April.
Also set in the 1930s, though this time in New York City, The Fiction is a murder mystery musical. It was first developed through the “Prepare for Your Debut” project hosted by the Korea Creative Content Agency in 2016. The Fiction received praise at the Daegu International Musical Festival in 2017.
The Daegu International Musical Festival also has several full-length videos on their YouTube channel.
At the end of June, the American streaming service Broadway on Demand streamed the Korean language musical XCalibur. Produced by EMK, with a score by Frank Wildhorn, XCalibur is a re-telling of the King Arthur legend, and featured Exo K-pop star Kai. It was available to stream on Broadway on Demand between June 27 and July 6, 2020.
Originally a German musical, Mozart das Musical was translated into Korean and presented by EMK in 2010. The musical was very popular, and was re-staged for a 10th anniversary production in early 2020. The musical was streamed on Naver and VLive on October 3 and 4.
New Korean streaming service IM.Culture will stream Legendary Little Basketball Team, an original musical about a basketball coach and his ailing team, on November 1 and 2.
In a similar trend to Korea, American and British musicals have seen a swell in popularity in the 21st century. Since 2008, the Moscow Operetta Theatre has sought to create original Russian-language musicals that according to Russia Beyond the Headlines reporter Julia Shevelkina, appeal to audiences “who love costume dramas,” and “a minister of culture who didn’t want state-run theatres to stage radical modern plays.”
Stage Russia have released two Moscow Operetta Theatre musicals online, Count Orlov and Anna Karenina. Both are based on Russian novels, and feature sumptuous costumes, striking scenic design, and epic Euro-pop scores. Both are also streamed with English subtitles.
Although it was filmed without a live audience, the Spanish-language Mexican production Daddy Long Legs, Papi Piernas Largas, is a delight. Produced by Oak Live, the two-hander musical was performed live to an empty theatre in Mexico City in early October, and streamed on Ticketmaster Live. The production was reminiscent of the off-Broadway production (the first off-Broadway musical to be livestreamed), though it had slightly different staging which included a clever story-book set. Papi Piernas Largas will stream again via Ticketmaster on November 15 (tickets are around $10US). English subtitles are not available.
Also streaming on Ticketmaster Mexico is La Juala de Las Locas, a Spanish-language production of La Cage Aux Folles. Filmed live with an audience, the the production was streamed live on October 17. It will be available stream again on November 20 via Ticketmaster, though it is currently only available to stream in Mexico.
Mentiras El Musical (Lies the Musical) is a Spanish-language Mexican jukebox musical that incorporates pop songs from the 1980s. Mentiras will be streamed live via Multistellar on November 7.
The popular Spanish-language production of The Man of La Mancha, El Hombre de La Mancha, will stream on November 14. Tickets are available via Ticketmaster.
On November 21 and 22, Shakespeare Foro in Mexico City will stream a Spanish-language production of End of the Rainbow, Al Fin del Arcoiris, a musical drama about the final days of Judy Garland. Tickets are available via Shakespeare Foro.
And to cap off the list, you can belatedly celebrate Dia de los Muertos with Si, Nos Dejan! (If They Let Us!), a Mexican musical celebrating the history of Mexican cinema. Filmed live at the Mejor Teatro in 2011, ¡Si, Nos Dejan! was broadcast via Ticketmaster Mexico on September 16, and will be re-broadcast on November 2. Tickets available via Ticketmaster.
Episode 8 of the Filmed Live Musicals podcast is out today! Available wherever you listen to podcasts or online here.
In this week's episode, I chat with actor and Broadway expert Kimberly Faye Greenberg all about her one woman show Fabulous Fanny: The Songs & Stories of Fanny Brice, Barbra Streisand, the technicalities of streaming a show online, creating online “events”, and more!
The Associated Press declared Kimberly Faye Greenberg a "Warm, Sassy Diva!”, while she played leading roles in two off-Broadway musicals at the same time: Danny and Sylvia, The Danny Kaye Musical (as Sylvia Fine) and the solo show One Night with Fanny Brice (receiving a Patrick Lee IBTA Best Solo Performance Award nomination amongst fellow nominees, John Leguizamo, Michael Shannon and Michael Birbiglia). Kimberly's own solo show, Fabulous Fanny: The Songs and Stories of Fanny Brice, has been touring for the past 8 years with the Huffington Post stating the show brings "Fanny Brice to Fabulous Life"!
Fabulous Fanny: The Songs and Stories of Fanny Brice is now available to stream on Stellar. For tickets and to learn more, visit http://www.kimberlyfayegreenberg.com. You can find Kimberly on Instagram at @kfgreenberg.
Take a listen for some fun insights, and if you like what you hear, please rate and review!
Did you know you can access transcripts of each episode?
Visit Buzzsprout and click on the episode title!
Past episodes include Brenda Braxton, Scenesaver with Caroline Friedman, Disney Cruise Line's Tangled with David Colston Corris, Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe with Julie Leach and more!
Available wherever you listen to podcasts!
In case you somehow missed it, one of the most vaunted musicals in history, Hamilton was released on Disney+ on July 3rd. While Hamilton is not the first Broadway musical to be streamed online, its prominence and undeniable success may finally be shifting some very deep seated views that filmed live theatre can’t adequately capture the live experience, and that filmed live theatre should exist at all. In an unprecedented move, it was announced earlier in the month the yet-to-officially-open Broadway musical Diana, would be filmed (without an audience) and broadcast on Netflix.
Many people know by now that Disney acquired the distribution rights for the filmed live production of Hamilton for approximately $75million (the final figure was adjusted due to the pandemic and the decision to release it online rather in cinemas). Much like Hamilton and Burr, you gotta be in the room where it happens to get the figures on how much Hamilton is bringing Disney financially, but it seems to bode well. As reported in Variety, early data suggests the musical had a significantly larger audience than any other single program across Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, Apple TV+, and Disney+ in July.
Much like Hamilton and Burr, you gotta be in the room where it happens to get the actual figures on how much Hamilton is bringing Disney financially. At the end of June, just prior to the release of Hamilton, Disney+ reported it had 54.5 million subscribers (for comparison, Netflix currently has about 190 million subscribers worldwide). According to Variety, in comparison to the four weeks prior, the weekend of Hamilton’s digital release saw a 74% increase in Disney+ app downloads within the United States, and 46% worldwide. At the beginning the August, Disney+ reported it had 60.5 million subscribers. These numbers do not include subscribers who purchased subscriptions through packages or where Disney+ is included in existing apps.
Going forward, there are still many questions for producers for consider: when to release filmed live productions, who gets access (due to copyright or union agreements, films may not be able to be released worldwide), if viewers should pay to access streams and for how much, how to fairly compensate cast/crew/creatives, and what platforms to use.
With all that in mind, here’s a look at existing models for distributing filmed live musicals online:
Online video platforms like YouTube and Vimeo have made it easier than ever to just upload existing footage. During the pandemic big names like Andrew Lloyd Webber and the National Theatre have released content for free online. Companies such as Southwark Playhouse, Chichester Festival Theatre, Wise Children, and Wales Millennium Centre, and independent artists like Dave Malloy and Angela Sclafani, have also made filmed live musicals freely available.
The quality of free recordings varies greatly. From productions staged in black box theatres filmed with a camera on a tripod located behind the audience like Beardo, to slick captures like the arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Sometimes recordings were made for archival purposes, like Only the Brave and Wasted. Archival recordings vary in quality, but thanks to digital cameras, recent captures make for decent viewing.
The length of time free streams are available can vary. Some are placed online indefinitely, such as The Room and Passion Project. Others, like titles from the National Theatre at Home, The Shows Must Go On, or Wise Children, have a limited window ranging from 48 hours to several weeks.
Unless the producers/creatives uploading material for free are covering the cost of paying artists for use of their work on screen, cast, crew, and creatives are less likely receive any income from free streams. The exception to this is new platform SceneSaver, which encourages viewers to donate the cost of an average ticket, and shares 95% of donations directly with artists (for more info, take a listen to episode 2 of the Filmed Live Musicals podcast for an interview with SceneSaver founder Caroline Friedman).
Especially during the pandemic, viewers are often encouraged to make a donation to the theatre company, or to a selected charity or organization.
There are several kinds of paid options: one-off payments, subscriptions, and passes.
Viewers make a one-time payment or purchase a “ticket” to gain access to the stream. The stream is often played at a scheduled time, and then is available on demand for a limited time. These films usually have a set period of availability, and are sometimes are also limited to a specific number of streams. Occasionally, as in the case of 21 Chump Street: The Musical, the payment provides indefinite access. Companies using this model include Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, Broadway on Demand, and Streaming Musicals.
Like free streams, the quality of content can vary. Particularly during the pandemic, when companies and artists are desperate for cashflow, archival footage not intended for mass consumption has been distributed.
The pricing for one-off payments ranges, though is usually between $10 - $30 USD. Although it is not common, instead of a set price, viewers are sometimes given the option to make a donation, or pay-as-you-like.
Following the Netflix model, subscriptions provide access to a catalog of shows. In the subscription model, like Netflix, titles are usually available for longer periods of time, and can appear and disappear. Most subscriptions run for a year, though some also provide month-to-month payments at a slightly higher rate. BroadwayHD, Stage, PBS, and Disney+ all currently use the subscription model.
Passes work in a similar way to a subscription, but often for a limited time. Prima, a theater in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, have created passes as varying price points for viewers to gain access to online content. As have SheNYC Arts, a female led organization running online festivals based in New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta over the summer.
Some companies use a combination of models. Broadway on Demand offers some content for free, some content for a one-off fee, and also plans to offer a subscription in the future. Streaming Musicals hosts free premiere nights, and titles are available to rent or buy through one-off payments. Digital Theatre offers an all-access yearly subscription, or the option to rent individual titles. While BroadwayHD offers monthly and yearly subscription models, throughout the pandemic they have been hosting free watch parties in partnership with Playbill, Roundabout, and the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization.
As live theatre online becomes more and more mainstream, and as we learn more about the number of views and profits from ticket sales, it will be interesting to see which models are adopted.
With the pandemic came a plethora of filmed live theatre content being released online. Many in the industry were genuinely surprised that audiences wanted to watch theatre on screen, and even pay for it! As discussed with Caroline Friedman - CEO of the new theatre streaming service Scenesaver - in this month’s podcast, we have been recording live theatre since the invention of the moving picture.
Despite the fact that the first live broadcast of a musical took place in 1939, and even with the release of Hamilton last month, the theatre industry as a whole is still not savvy to the history, magic, and importance of filmed live theatre. In a recent interview for The TheaterMakers Studio, CEO and Editor-in-Chief of BroadwayWorld, claimed that “very little” has happened in the world of filmed live theatre despite decades of discussions. The nearly 200 musicals in the Filmed Live Musicals database heartily disagree! And that doesn’t even include the hundreds, possibly thousands, of operas, plays, ballets, and classical concerts that have been captured and enjoyed by literally millions of people around the world!
After the release of Hamilton, Jon Kamen, CEO of RadicalMedia, reportedly claimed that with the filming of RENT: Live on Broadway in 2008, RadicalMedia had "developed the nomenclature and a whole style of filming it in a very cinematic fashion.” Again, the producers of Pacific Overtures (filmed live in 1976), Into the Woods (filmed in 1991), and the cinematographers for the Met Live in HD, founded in 2006, all might have something to say about that.
We still have to answer questions of when to release films, and how to fairly pay the cast, crew, and creatives, but these should not be obstacles to documenting theatre. Filming live theatre provides access to theatre for people who may not be able to see a production due to geography, cost, or disability. It is an incredible educational tool, not just for students, but for historians, industry folks, and the wider public. Digital technology has made captures easier, more dynamic, and more watchable than ever.
All of this is why I started Filmed Live Musicals. As a place to catalog the musicals that have been legally captured for the screen and publicly distributed, to provide a space for people to find that content, and to show the historic value of filmed live musicals. Ultimately, it is a way to capture ephemeral moments in time so that we may enjoy them, learn from them, and remember the musicals, even when the bodies inside the now-disintegrated costumes have turned to dust.
Filmed Live Musicals now has a podcast! We will talk about the world of filmed live musicals, interview creatives, actors, producers and industry folks, look at the research being carried out on filmed theatre, dive into some history, and, of course, talk about the musicals themselves!
In our first episode, host Luisa Lyons and guest host Al Monaco take a look at firsts in filmed live musicals.
In episode two, out on August 3, Luisa chats with the founder of Scenesaver, Caroline Friedman. Scenesaver is a new platform making performances from the world's off-Broadway, off West End, small theatres, and emerging artists available to everyone online. It's free to register and watch with over 150 shows of all genres from around the world available now!
Subscribe on your preferred podcast app and join us for the Filmed Live Musicals podcast!